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Vietnam Interview: A Hero Returns to Combat

By Fred L. Borch
6/6/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Colonel Gordon R. Roberts, a Vietnam and Iraq war veteran and only Medal of Honor recipient on active duty, speaks out on soldiers and soldiering.

Three days after graduating from high school in May 1968, 17-year-old Gordon R. Roberts joined the Army. He arrived at Cam Ranh Bay a year later, on April 30, 1969. The next day, Pfc. Roberts joined B Company, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division at Camp Evans.

On July 11, 1969, Roberts’ heroic acts in a firefight earned him the Medal of Honor. When he received the medal from President Richard M. Nixon in March 1971, then-Sergeant Roberts was the youngest recipient of the America’s highest military honor.

Roberts left the Army later that year and went on to earn degrees in sociology and social work, and began a successful civilian career. In 1989 he received a direct commission as a Medical Service Corps lieutenant in the Ohio National Guard. During Operation Desert Shield, Roberts was given the chance to remain on active duty and he eagerly accepted it. Lieutenant Colonel Roberts was a battalion commander in Balad, Iraq, from November 2004 to November 2005. Earlier this year, Colonel Roberts took command of the training brigade at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Vietnam: What were the early influences that set you on your extraordinary military career?

Roberts: I was born on Flag Day, June 14, 1950, in Lebanon, Ohio, a small town of about 2,500. I grew up with two brothers and a sister and had a pretty good home life. I never really knew my real father and I haven’t seen him since I was 11 or 12 years old. My stepfather, Forrest Alvin Russell— we always called him Al—was a major influence in my life.

In World War II, he was drafted and after Pearl Harbor he went to Schofield Barracks and then to the Pacific. He was there for six years, without even a phone call home. My stepfather was very much a “citizen-soldier.” By that I mean that he wasn’t big on the military; he certainly did not talk about it when I was growing up. He had done his duty, and then he wanted to be a civilian. But he took a great deal of pride in our country. My brothers and I were active in athletics, and this certainly developed good sportsmanship and teamwork. I was a local star in track and cross country but not good enough to get a scholarship. I needed the GI bill to go to college, and that was one reason I decided to enlist.

My grandfather and real father had both served in the Army. My father had fought in Europe and been decorated with the Silver Star. He was taken prisoner by the Germans, and then was freed by Patton’s soldiers. In fact, when I got to Vietnam I ended up in the same unit that my father had served in, the famous 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment—“Currahees.”

What my grandfather and father did as soldiers was not why I joined the Army right out of high school. I wanted the GI bill for college. But I also thought it was my responsibility to serve. I believe that probably the biggest influence in my life—and why I ultimately joined the Army—was simply the town of Lebanon, a patriotic community that took great pride in its veterans. Service to country—whether as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine—was something that the town believed was not only important but was the norm. That impressed me then and it is what I believe today.

Having said that, there were about 200 folks in my high school class and I don’t know of anyone else who enlisted when I did. But I decided to sign up three days after I graduated.

What did you do as a soldier before you got to Vietnam?

I chose the infantry because that was my concept of what a soldier really was. To this very day, when someone asks, I tell folks, “I am a rifleman with temporary duty as a medical service corps officer.”

After I finished basic and advanced individual training, I volunteered for airborne school and got my wings. I thought that would mean that I would go to an airborne unit, and perhaps to Vietnam, but the Soviets had just invaded Czechoslovakia and so a lot of us were shipped to Europe. I was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany, and I sat on the Czech border. That wasn’t really my idea of soldiering, so I volunteered to go to Vietnam.

Then I started preparing—mentally and physically. When I was in basic training at Fort Benning, I had a very good drill sergeant who was a multiple Purple Heart recipient. He did something that I will always remember. A soldier asked why we were doing some aspect of training and the sergeant told the soldier to pull out his wallet and show him a picture of his wife and kids. Then he said, “You are doing this training for yourself and so that you come home to your wife and kids.”

This really hit home. It meant that my responsibility to be prepared wasn’t just for myself but was also for my family and for other soldiers.

After volunteering for Vietnam, I decided that I should improve my shooting skills. I joined the battalion rifle team and began shooting more. On the rifle range, I started “hip firing” so that I could be more effective. At the time, we were firing the M-14. I never saw an M-16 until I got to Vietnam.

I also practiced getting off a truck as fast as I could, and then getting down on the ground and taking up a firing position. I was training for speed. In fact, I never rode on a truck into combat in Vietnam, but the idea was sound—looking for imaginative ways to prepare for what I thought I would face in Vietnam.

What happened during your first days in country?

I stepped off the airplane at Cam Ranh Bay on the last day of April 1969. We did not deploy to Vietnam as a unit, so every one of us was an individual replacement. I went right to the 101st Airborne Division, which was heavily engaged in the A Shau Valley. I was at Camp Evans within 24 hours for in-processing, and a day later I was out in the field.

There was no opportunity to meet anyone in the rear because all the key personnel were in the field with the company. I was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry. Two days after I got to the field, I saw my first combat with uniformed North Vietnamese soldiers. I never saw any Viet Cong the whole time I was with the 101st.

The company went out for two to three weeks and we just maneuvered, mostly on what were then called search-and-destroy missions. We had what we could carry and were resupplied by UH-1H helicopters, “Slicks.” They brought in food, mail, ammunition and other supplies. Every two to three weeks, we went into a firebase to get cleaned up and rest, but we also inherited the duty of protecting the base while we were there.

Not long after I got to the 101st, Hamburger Hill started. Our battalion saw a lot of action. It was hard fighting against the North Vietnamese in very tough terrain along the Laotian border. We remained in the A Shau Valley until the first part of June. Then I got my first R&R—three days at China Beach.

What happened on July 11, 1969?

We were back in the A Shau Valley and I was the point man for my squad. It was about 1800 hours and we were moving with our platoon to attack a North Vietnamese bunker complex that had pinned down an adjoining friendly company.

As our platoon approached, we were also pinned down by automatic weapons fire and grenades from camouflaged fortifications located on top of a hill. Four soldiers behind me were shot by sniper fire. Because of my training, I knew that the only smart thing to do was to continue to move forward, so I crawled toward the closest NVA bunker. When I was fairly close, I leaped to my feet and charged it, firing as I ran.

There were two NVA in this first bunker, but after I finished with them, I immediately moved forward to attack a second bunker. When I was quite close to this position, a burst of gunfire knocked my M-16 right out of my hands. But I looked down and there was another rifle lying on the ground. So I picked it up and continued my attack. After knocking out this second bunker, I went after a third, and was able to take it out with some well-thrown hand grenades.

By this time, I had moved so far forward in attacking these three bunkers that I was cut off from my platoon. But there was a fourth NVA bunker and so I attacked it as well. Again, I knocked it out with hand grenades.

Then, although there were a lot of bullets coming my way, I managed to join up with soldiers of the company that we had originally gone to help. They were still pinned down. We were continually under fire, but there were wounded soldiers in exposed positions on the hilltop, so I helped move them to an evacuation area.

Before long, my company reached us and I returned to my own platoon. That’s pretty much it. I had used my M-16 and hand grenades to assault four bunkers, and this helped the company to move forward to relieve our fellow soldiers. Later, I found out that I had been nominated for the Medal of Honor for my performance that day. I still do not know who actually nominated me.

What did you do on the rest of your tour before leaving Vietnam in April 1970?

I made sergeant in August 1969 and volunteered to head a six-man team that did reconnaissance and ambushes. We looked for NVA training areas and called in artillery or Air Force aircraft to attack them. We avoided combat, as the idea was to observe, not to fight.

What is it like to be the youngest living recipient of the Medal of Honor and the only recipient on active duty?

The ceremony was March 2, 1971. You can’t imagine what it was like for me as a 20-year-old kid to meet President Nixon, to be in the White House, to receive the nation’s highest award. The sheer excitement of the event was overwhelming. So it was a really big honor—and it still is a really big honor.

Yet, over the years I’ve found that the Medal of Honor can be a burden. There are responsibilities that come with it, and soldiers expect more of those who wear it. But that isn’t why I say it can be a burden. What I mean is that I know that soldiers I serve with today are interested in what I did in the past. But I really am not.

A sergeant, whom I really admired, once told me, “You are only as good as your next award.” He was right. You can’t live on history and you can’t live on the Medal of Honor. Don’t get me wrong, I am honored that the Army thought enough of my soldiering to award it to me, but I am about the here-and-now and the future. My only goal is to serve my country and do my best to take care of soldiers.

What did you do after returning from Vietnam?

When I got back, I was assigned to Fort Meade with the 11th Cavalry Regiment for about a year. This was probably the worst assignment I’ve ever had because it did not involve soldiering. Rather, it was all about riot duty in Washington, D.C. We actually deployed down into the city and would walk patrol.

How did you decide to get out of the Army and why?

After the White House ceremony with President Nixon, there was a second ceremony at the Pentagon. General Westmoreland and I sat down on the steps in front of the building and he asked me what he could do for me. I was only 20 years old. Westmoreland knew that I was thinking of leaving active duty, and so he offered to get me an appointment to West Point. He also talked to me about the “bootstrap program,” a college program for NCOs who were commissioned upon graduation. I explained to him that I wasn’t interested in being an officer. I said I wanted to go to college but I wanted to remain an NCO. I really lacked respect for the majority of the officers that I encountered. Westmoreland did not agree with me but he understood.

What did you do after leaving the Army in 1971?

There was a lot of publicity about me when I received the Medal of Honor and, because I had said that I wanted to go to college, I had a large number of scholarship offers. But these all involved publicizing the Medal of Honor, and I didn’t like that at all. That’s why I picked the University of Dayton. There was a retired colonel who was a vice president at the university, and he offered me a full scholarship and guaranteed my anonymity until graduation. I thought that was very considerate. This meant a lot to me when there was so much antiwar sentiment.

I got a degree in sociology first in 1974. I chose this field because I wanted to help people. I worked 15 years as a social worker and a probation officer in Ohio. During this time I also earned a master’s in social work.

How did you get the opportunity to return to active duty?

I missed the Army, so, in 1988, I applied for and got a direct commission as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Ohio National Guard. During Operation Desert Storm, while I was a student at Fort Sam Houston, the Army asked if I wanted to return to active duty. I quickly agreed because I simply never lost my love for the Army.

Why Medical Service Corps?

When I came back on active duty, the Army did offer me the chance to transfer to the infantry. I decided, however, that it made more sense for me to select the Medical Service Corps, given my education and civilian experience. After all, the objective even in the Army is not to fight wars but to help people, and that is what I am all about. At the same time, I also believe that I’m a rifleman at heart. The branch brass that I happen to wear on my collar doesn’t change that.

What assignments have you had in the Army since 1991?

I served as the commander of a general hospital at Fort Gordon. Then I was an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning. This was the job that I enjoyed the most. I was there as an Army Medical Department (AMEDD) officer and was supposed to teach the AMEDD piece but ended up taking over the leadership department in 2000. The desire that the young lieutenants and captains had for learning was beyond rewarding. For me, it was very much a two-way learning process.

After completing Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, I commanded a battalion at Fort Bragg and at Camp Anaconda, Iraq.

What was your experience in Iraq?

The Medical Service Corps does logistics, and its officers are eligible for multifunctional command boards. I was named the battalion commander of a logistical battalion in XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg—the Special Troops Battalion, 1st Corps Support Command. Beginning in 2003 I was in command about 15 months before we went to Iraq. We left in November 2004 for Camp Anaconda, near Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Our mission was to provide logistics support all over Iraq, running convoys moving fuel, water and ammunition. Our principal job was to escort the contractors who were moving supplies for everyone.

We provided the gun trucks and the security. This was not easy because we had anywhere from 20 to 90 trucks per convoy. Twenty trucks stretch out two to three miles, so you can imagine the length of a 90-truck convoy. We traveled anywhere from 15 to 200 miles. In the wide-open desert you can move fairly quickly— 50 to 60 mph—but you must move slowly in built-up areas. I went on 20 to 30 convoys and did thousands of miles. A lot of my troops did from 50,000 to 80,000 miles.

The threat of an Improvised Explosive Device or indirect fire was very real, and my battalion did suffer some killed and wounded. My own HUM – VEE was hit with small-arms fire.

What insights do you have on soldiering in Vietnam as compared to Iraq? Is there anything the Army does better today?

The biggest difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that today we go in as a team and we go out as a team. This means that everyone is used to working together. Vietnam was terrible. There were 120 men in my company, and 10 to 15 were leaving every month. Everyone went in as an individual and left as an individual. This made it really hard to develop teamwork and unit cohesion.

Another major mistake in Vietnam was that a company commander did a six-month command tour while the rest of the company was there for a year. Depending on when a soldier arrived in his company, he could see as many as three company commanders in a year. The same was true with platoon leaders—always coming in to “check the block” and then departing. It was a bad system.

Another big difference for me was the absence of civilians in Vietnam as compared with Iraq. I know that other soldiers had a different experience in Vietnam, especially those assigned to units near Saigon or Long Binh, but I had no contact with villagers or civilians during all my time in the field with the 101st.

The physical part of soldiering also was very different in Vietnam. Soldiers in Iraq today don’t do what we did. Except for a weeklong R&R to Australia, I spent the whole time out in the field.

A tremendous amount of physical toughness was required. Every soldier in my unit carried a 50- to 70-lb. ruck and we moved 12-15 hours every day, constantly trudging up hills and down hills. The heat, the mud, the dirt were always present. It was hard on your health, too: I had solid ringworm from my waist down to my socks, and boils too.

Are today’s individual soldiers and junior leaders the best that you have ever seen in your years as a soldier?

I really don’t think so. The American soldier in Vietnam was every bit as courageous, dedicated and loyal as today’s soldier. There is zero difference in terms of courage and commitment. The difference is that today there is a much greater focus on the soldier—making sure that they are well equipped and well trained. In Vietnam, there wasn’t as much concern about the soldier, and men were frequently weak in soldier skills. Today, however, we really focus on making sure that the soldier has the training he needs.

I don’t think today’s soldiers are smarter or better educated—I think a lot is simply due to technology. They are better trained because the Army as an institution is better about focusing on the soldier.

And Congress cares. During Vietnam, Congress didn’t care about soldiers, but today it does. Senators and representatives are interested in whether HUMVEEs have sufficient armor, whether soldiers have the right body armor and whether they have the best weapons. Perhaps most important, Congress gets us what we need regardless of costs.

Finally, of course, because now we deploy as a unit—as a team—rather than as individuals, today’s soldier just does a lot better.

 

Colonel Fred L. Borch (who served with Colonel Roberts in the 1990s) retired from the Army as a Judge Advocate General Corps officer. He is now command historian of the Army’s JAG School in Charlottesville, Va. For additional reading, see: Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes, by Edward F. Murphy; and 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, The Continuing Struggle 1968-1969, by Richard L. Bryan and Gary L. Pitchford.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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